The last thing universities and ministers need right now is more controversy when it comes to applications. But that is what they will get this week, following the publication by TES of new revelations about the offers they make to pupils.
Schools and teachers will be deeply concerned to discover that, when they predict high A-level grades for their pupils, they may be inadvertently harming their chances of getting on to the undergraduate course of their choice. Some universities, it has emerged, are making higher offers to stronger applicants.
A sixth-former predicted to achieve three top grades at A-level may be made an offer of AAA, whereas a candidate expected to achieve a mixture of As and Bs may be offered AAB or ABB for the same course.
The admissions policy, known as "making a range of offers", is operated for selected courses by Manchester, Leeds, Hull and Sussex universities.
The practice makes it harder for sixth-formers and teachers to prepare university applications, said Roberta Georghiou, head of Bury Grammar School for Girls in Greater Manchester. "It is essential that universities are transparent about these polices and I am not sure this is always the case," she said.
Making a range of offers is "a dangerous issue", she added, because students accepted with lower grades are less likely to be able to meet the academic rigour of the course. "The danger is that universities admit candidates who are unable to capitalise on the opportunity they have been offered, while others who meet the criteria are excluded," she said.
Other universities, such as York, Kent and East Anglia, vary offers according to information about the candidate and this may include predicted grades.
Still others, however, do not make differential offers, with some stating explicitly that it would be unfair. For example, Nottingham Trent University says that "the entry requirements for the university's courses are all applied consistently to ensure fairness and transparency of its offers".
But the universities that pursue the policy are unapologetic. "Some of our academic schools use what we call a range of offers to ensure that they recruit and select the best students," said Pia Pollock, admissions policy adviser at Manchester University. Lower offers are made to candidates unlikely to achieve the highest grades if they can convince admissions staff that they have the potential to succeed - for example, in the written application, she added.
The details of the process were laid bare following a request made under the Freedom of Information Act on behalf of TES that revealed wide variation among university admissions policies. While many are still placing considerable emphasis on predicted grades, some have reviewed their policies in the light of Government pressure on state schools to disclose - or "cash in" - their AS-level results this year.
For example, Birmingham University has reviewed its criteria for medicine as a result of the "wider availability of AS results". "Where a school does not cash in AS results, nor supply the university with information about the achieved AS results, the university cannot guarantee that the applicant will not be at a disadvantage," it told schools.
Leeds University says it takes a holistic view, using all the information provided by applicants as part of its decision-making process. "We therefore strongly encourage all applicants to declare their cashed-in AS results," it added.
No university admitted to making a distinction between applications from state and independent-school candidates. But this does not mean that the independents are happy about the "range of offers" policy.
"Students and their teachers are being put in a difficult position by the complexity of the university admissions system and the lack of predictable patterns, with each university setting its own rules," Dr William Richardson, general secretary of the Headmasters' and Headmistresses' Conference, said.
Indeed, Mrs Georghiou, who is also co-chair of the Independent Schools' Universities Committee, went further.
"We are aware of Birmingham Medical School's policy on AS grades this year and it's a really good example of how powerful university departments, where there is lots of pressure for places, can introduce new rules outside the Ucas system," she said. "Ucas is trying to set a level playing field and then a university is able to move the goalposts at the other end. That's a very serious issue and is very unhelpful for teachers and candidates.
"I feel especially sorry for young people applying for medicine. How on earth they write a statement when there aren't four medical schools that want the same thing, I don't know."
Perhaps surprisingly, the university sector found some support among the classroom unions. "I am sure that universities have good reason for making a range of offers, but the wide variation in admissions policies makes things very difficult for teachers," said Darren Northcott (pictured, right), NASUWT national official for education.
"An application that is right for one university may be wrong for another, and what teachers want is fairness and transparency from universities, which is not always evident," he added.
But what the issue really highlights is ongoing argument about the nature of university applications. One longstanding campaigner on the issue is Sir Peter Lampl, chair of educational charity the Sutton Trust, who wants to remove the conditions that make such variations possible.
"We believe that the best way to create a level playing field for all university candidates is to admit them on their actual, not predicted, A-level grades," he said. "A post-qualifications application system, where applications are made after A-level grades are known, would remove the uncertainties and complexities in university admissions that disadvantage students from non-privileged backgrounds."